NSO Offers Farewell Salute To Rostropovich

By Robert Battey
Special to The Washington Post
Monday, May 21, 2007

Ina strong showing of respect and affection for former music director Mstislav Rostropovich, the National Symphony Orchestra musicians agreed to give a special free tribute concert on Saturday, beginning just two hours before giving their final performance of a challenging subscription program. It was a touching gesture, and the capacity audience bespoke the veneration that Slava inspired here.

Rostropovich, who died April 27, just after his 80th birthday, was the NSO's fourth music director and led the group for 17 seasons. Much has already been said about him, and the concert itself was appropriately short on eulogies (though there were interesting photos and essays in the program booklet, which is likely now a collector's item).

The hour-long concert featured brief tributes from orchestra members and Rostropovich's successor, Leonard Slatkin, setting off musical selections of particular importance for Rostropovich, including the slow movements of the Tchaikovsky "Pathetique" Symphony, the Shostakovich Fifth, and the brief overture "Slava!," which Leonard Bernstein composed on the occasion of Rostropovich's ascension to his post here.

The concert opened with the NSO cello section playing David Teie's four-part arrangement of the Sarabande from Bach's Cello Suite No. 6. Inferring harmonies that the composer didn't actually write is always a risky venture, but the arrangement set the warm-hearted tone of the evening nicely.

For the two big symphonic excerpts, the NSO played well enough, but it is a different band under Slatkin. For all his technical sloppiness as a conductor, Rostropovich could draw playing of blistering intensity in concerts, little of which was evident on Saturday. Whether from Slatkin's precise but generic conducting or because they were saving themselves for the real work of the evening later on, the NSO performed in largely perfunctory manner. There was plenty of pizazz in the Bernstein overture, but that was built-in.

The concert ended with what should have been a moving, almost reverent gesture. The entire hall was darkened, with a single overhead spotlight on the conductor's podium. Then, over loudspeakers, came Rostropovich's own recording of the Bach Sarabande heard earlier. The image was indeed moving, but the recording was, sadly, one of Slava's least-happy moments in the studio. It was a shame to remember him that way, but one guesses that most of those in attendance already had their own special Slava moments to take with them.

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